Writing

What Is Science Fiction Writing? Definition and Characteristics of Science Fiction Literature

Written by MasterClass

Jun 1, 2019 • 5 min read

Science fiction is one of the most creative genres in literature. Sci-fi novels take readers on adventures from faraway galaxies to underwater worlds and everywhere in between, introducing them to otherworldly characters and technologies along the way. Learn more about the history of this fascinating genre.

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What Is Science Fiction Literature?

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction that contains imagined elements that don’t exist in the real world. Science fiction spans a wide range of themes that often explore time travel, space travel, are set in the future, and deal with the consequences of technological and scientific advances

The History of Science Fiction Literature

The science fiction genre dates back to the second century. A True Story, written by the Syrian satirist Lucian, is thought to be the first sci-fi story, which explored other universes and extraterrestrial lifeforms. Modern science developed during the Age of Enlightenment, and writers reacted to scientific and technological advancements with a wave of sci-fi stories like New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (1627), Somnium by Johannes Kepler (1634), and Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac (1657).

Hard Science Fiction Versus Soft Science Fiction: What’s the Difference?

Science fiction is divided into two broad categories: Hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi.

  • Hard sci-fi novels are based on scientific fact. They’re inspired by “hard” natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and astronomy.
  • Soft sci-fi novels can be two things: Either they are not scientifically accurate or they’re inspired by “soft” social sciences like psychology, anthropology, and sociology.

The terms are somewhat flexible, but they help readers quickly understand the foundation of a novel and what to expect from it.

8 Sub-genres and Related Genres of Science Fiction

  1. Fantasy fiction: Sci-fi stories inspired by mythology and folklore that often include elements of magic.
  2. Supernatural fiction: Sci-fi stories about secret knowledge or hidden abilities that include witchcraft, spiritualism, and psychic abilities.
  3. Utopian fiction: Sci-fi stories about civilizations the authors deem to be perfect, ideal societies. Utopian fiction is often satirical.
  4. Dystopian fiction: Sci-fi stories about societies the authors deem to be problematic for things like government rules, poverty, or oppression.
  5. Space opera: A play on the term “soap opera,” sci-fi stories that take place in outer space and center around conflict, romance, and adventure.
  6. Space western: Sci-fi stories that blend elements of science fiction with elements of the western genre.
  7. Cyberpunk: Sci-fi stories that juxtapose advanced technology with less advanced, broken down society.
  8. Steampunk: Sci-fi stories that blend technology with steam-powered machinery.

What Are the Common Characteristics of Science Fiction?

Science fiction is often called the “literature of ideas.” Sci-fi novels include a wide variety of futuristic concepts. Since they’re so imaginative, anything is possible, especially in soft sci-fi novels. A sci-fi novel can be about space, time travel, aliens, or time-traveling aliens in space.

Regardless of the setting and characters, all sci-fi stories are complex, contain nuanced detail, and explore larger themes and commentary—sometimes satirically—about society beneath the surface.

The classic elements of a science fiction novel include:

  • Time travel
  • Teleportation
  • Mind control, telepathy, and telekinesis
  • Aliens, extraterrestrial lifeforms, and mutants
  • Space travel and exploration
  • Interplanetary warfare
  • Parallel universes
  • Fictional worlds
  • Alternative histories
  • Speculative technology
  • Superintelligent computers and robots

12 Classic Science Fiction Novels to Know and Read

Familiarize yourself with these classic works of science fiction that inspired novelists and screenwriters in many different genres. Many have been turned into movies and television shows:

  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870): features underwater exploration and a technologically advanced submarine—two things that were primitive at the time the novel was written.
  2. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1898): tells the story of Martians invading Earth and includes themes of space, science, and astronomy.
  3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932): set in a futuristic dystopian world with many scientific developments where people are genetically modified.
  4. Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (1938): tells the story of an alien creature that’s a shape-shifter and has the gift of telepathy.
  5. Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1942): follows a galactic civilization after their empire collapses.
  6. 1984 by George Orwell (1949): set in a dystopian version of the year 1984 where the world has succumbed to extreme levels of government interference in daily lives.
  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953): set in a futuristic dystopian society where books are banned and will be burned if found.
  8. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961): tells the story of a human who was born on Mars and raised by Martians who comes to live on Earth.
  9. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962): set 15 years after the end of World War II, offers an alternate history of what could happen if the Axis Powers had defeated the Allied Powers.
  10. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965): set in an interstellar society in the distant future.
  11. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968): tells the story of ancient aliens who travel the galaxy and help develop intelligent life forms in other worlds.
  12. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985): tells the story of the women who lose their rights after a totalitarian state overthrows the U.S. government. Watch Atwood discuss how she arrived at her main character’s point of view in her MasterClass.

4 Tips for Science Fiction Writers

As you write your sci-fi novel, consider the following:

  1. Draw inspiration for your story from real life. Take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if human beings are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.
  2. Do some research. It may seem paradoxical, but research will strengthen your project, no matter how far you end up straying from historical facts. Conducting research too early in the drafting process can sidetrack or slow down the plot, but it’s critical to keep your reader immersed in and believing the world you’ve created. Getting the details wrong can throw off their belief in your story.
  3. Create a set of rules for the world of your novel—and stick to them. Sci-fi is not automatically interesting; it must be made compelling, plausible, and accurate within its own set of rules. Rules add weight to the material or change the stakes for your characters and/or readers. Once you establish a rule, if you break it, you break the illusion of a believable and compelling world.
  4. Keep it grounded in reality. Any technological or fantastical element in sci-fi should have roots in what our current species can already do or is on the road to being able to do.

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